The Man Behind the Mask

  • August 07, 2012

Many men come to therapy when they are at rock bottom, completely out of options, desperate for something to change.  I notice that my female clients are more likely to get help before everything completely implodes – why is that? 


I think the short answer is shame.  Men and boys have been systematically shamed over their lifetimes for showing basic human emotions such as: sadness, fear, longing, disappointment or even excitement over the "wrong" things.  From a young age, boys get the message either overtly or covertly that showing emotional vulnerability isn’t only unacceptable it’s down right dangerous. 

How does this happen?  I think it happens with the best intentions, which is why it has been such a persistent and pervasive problem.  Not only are loving  parents worried about making their boys too “dependent” or “soft”, coaches, teachers and other well-meaning mentors unwittingly reinforce these ideas that expressing emotions (other than anger) is weak.  Boys learn quickly that they need to “Shake it off” or “Get it under control” otherwise risk crushing criticism and rejection by peers and beloved adults alike.  Even therapists can miss the mark, using a more “problem solving” approach with men rather than the “emotional inquiry” the might use with female clients. 

What options are men left with but to try to disconnect from strong feelings and live behind the safety of a “mask”?  The mask may be one of toughness, grandiosity, or invisibility.  Of course, the larger culture is all too eager to reinforce these stereotypes for men as well starting with invincible, needless superheros, moving on to every flavor of violent sociopath (any mobster flick) or narcissistic jerk (think Don Draper in Mad Men), and multiple emotionally clueless “dumb husband” characters (i.e. Homer Simpson).

The messages are clear:

1.) Your needs don’t count so get rid of them.

2.) Anger is the only acceptably “masculine” feeling and violence is an acceptable form of self-expression.

3.)  Women think you’re an idiot because you don’t know how to talk about your feelings (even though we contribute to shaming you as much as the men in your life)

Men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Tough crowd.

Rick Belden's poem, Little Iron Man speaks to the "mask" that many men are forced to create and wear (often for a lifetime) as they conform to the demands of the Boy Code. 

My hope is that more men will begin realize that the mask isn’t needed anymore.  As a child, you had no power and no choice.  You did what you needed to do to be loved and accepted.  As an adult, you choose who you want to be and how you want to live.  


little iron man


angry eyes burn behind cold metal mask

muscles tensed for fight in flight

repulsor rays    boot jets    armor

he is iron man.


all-powerful controller    master of his fate

vengeful righteous realist    almighty godlike hero

protector    judge    destroyer    martyr

invincible impervious inhuman.


mechanical masculinity    lover of the machine

better safe than sorry    greedy me-first hoarder

            dark doomy death dealer

            self-satisfying soul stealer

            childhood's chosen champion.


his armor

            once glistening    once wonderful

now binds and holds in place

            battle-scarred    time-tarnished    too small

            pitted    scorched    outdated    in the way

barrier to growth and love and life.


I tried to forget him

            but he came to me in dreams

I tried to kill him

            but he was stronger than I am

I tried to banish him

            but he wouldn't leave me

so I pulled off his grim metal mask.


a child's face    my face    revealed at last

frustrated    frightened    familiar    hopeful

            little boy with wounded heart

scared of the body he can't control

afraid to come outside    it hurts to be with people

a quarter century in an armor shell

waiting for mommy and daddy to make it right.








Excerpted from Iron Man Family Outing: Poems about Transition into a More Conscious Manhood by Rick Belden.  Copyright © 1990, 2008 by Rick Belden.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.






















you choose how you want to live and who you want to be.  




















you choose how you want to live and who you want to be.